The status quo remained largely unchanged on Sunday at Augusta National – Europe extended its winless streak to a baker’s dozen, the long putter remains Grand Slam kryptonite, Australia remains an inexplicably perfect 0-for-75 at the game’s most exclusive invitational and club chairman Billy Payne has now delivered three consecutive keepers.
Not that Payne, or any of the other green jacket members, would admit to such influence. On Sunday in the fading light, the chairman referred to the quality of play and the timeless test of the golf course.
But no one is this lucky.
Most majors are defined by who won. The 75th Masters may well be remembered for who didn’t, with apologies to the South African flat-liner who actually took the green jacket.
From Tiger Woods’ front-nine charge to Rory McIlroy’s back-nine collapse, the 2011 Masters may eventually suffer the same fate as the infamous 1999 Open Championship, which was ... all together now, lost by Jean Van de Velde.
Australians Adam Scott and Jason Day finished tied for second and were happy to do so, never mind that they’d missed the best chance in more than a decade to end the “Aussie duck” at Augusta National.
All totaled, eight players held at least a share of the lead Sunday, and that doesn’t even cover spirited runs by the likes of Luke Donald and Bo Van Pelt.
Even Charl Schwartzel, the soft-spoken champion who is best described as a more subdued version of Retief Goosen, made an indelible mark, closing with four consecutive birdies for a two-stroke victory that felt much closer.
“I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it,” said Ben Crenshaw, perhaps the preeminent playing historian of his generation and someone who knows a few things about emotional Masters victories. “Never have I seen so much collective good play. Nobody backed off at all. ... I don’t know how you can finish more like a major champion. I’m not sure anyone has ever birdied the last four holes to win a major.”
Early Monday talk shows from Boise to Boston were abuzz, debating, however pointlessly, whether this was the greatest Masters finish. It was not – Jack Nicklaus in 1986, followed by Woods in 1997, top that mountain, at least in the modern era. But 2011 was good, very good.
To dismiss Augusta National’s good fortune as happenstance, however, is to ignore the extremes the club goes to in order to make Sunday special. They say luck favors the prepared, and no one in golf is more prepared.
Back in the days before the club started talking about the annual changes to the former nursery, specifically the addition of some 500 yards from 1998 to 2006, there is a famous locker room tale of a long-time Tour pro who stepped to the first tee, looked around and observed, “Ain’t that something, they picked up that entire clubhouse and (oak) tree and moved it 20 yards closer to the first green.”
Similarly, the club would never admit to dialing in the back nine for speed over comfort, but after less-than-pine-rattling finishes in 2007 and ’08 that felt more like U.S. Opens than Masters, some opined that the fun had been removed from Sunday’s closing loop.
Statistics support that argument; although it must be pointed out conditions in 2007 and ’08 were not conducive to low scoring. Sunday’s back-nine scoring average was 35.592, similar to what it was in ’10 (35.585) and ’09 (35.36); and almost two strokes less than it was in ’08 (37.466) and ’07 (37.149).
Either by design or default, the cheers have returned, and we’re leaning toward the former.
“They gave us another step, step and a half on some of these pins. That's a lot here with these slopes. You give us a step, step and a half, that's quite a bit,” Woods noted on Friday. “They are just that much more forgiving.”
It’s a simple equation, really. Red numbers equal a raucous Sunday. And it may at least partially explain why the Masters has largely avoided the “fluke” champion. Unlike its Grand Slam stablemates, Augusta National has no aversion to red like the U.S. Open now and forever, and the PGA Championship used to. Nor is the club subject to the whims of weather to the extent of the Open Championship.
Outside of Mother Nature – which has, admittedly, been a more-than-willing partner in recent years – there is nothing left to chance.
Although the “how” remains a mystery, there is no debating the what. All one had to do on Sunday was close his or her eyes and listen to the unfolding mayhem. There are no scripts in golf, but at Augusta National they’ve certainly perfected the blueprint.